Implicit Bias, Explicit Results

By Stephen Paskoff

Sep. 19, 2014

Humans make quick decisions. We react reflexively to strange, threatening and potentially life-threatening situations. It’s part of how we survive.

Less dramatically but more frequently, we have routine interactions where we meet someone and later realize we’d gotten a “good” or “bad” impression about that person. Maybe this “feeling” translated into an instant like or dislike, all based on an encounter that lasted only a few seconds. But they can affect whether and how we choose to interact with individuals afterward.

These gut-level reactions often don’t rise to the level of consciousness. Frequently, we’re not even aware of the choices we made when we made them. Articles have been written and tests developed to explain and prove the process referred to as hidden, unconscious, or implicit bias. Neurobiologists are still trying to understand how it works. What we do know is that it exists and affects behavior.

In our workplaces, these biases can lead to bad and potentially illegal business decisions. For example, as noted in a recent article in the New York Times, individuals may review resumes and screen out qualified individuals whose background facts may suggest they are African American in favor of applicants with equal qualifications whose biographies suggest they are Caucasian. These forms of bias may extend to gender, national origin and other characteristics. This process can affect other employment decisions, as well as social interactions.

This unconscious process can conflict with organizational commitments to maximize the best talents of applicants and employees and to avoid making decisions that are unfair, unwise, divisive and potentially illegal. To overpower this hardy, hidden instinct, employers have to address it. The ultimate responsibility is to make sure that conscious decisions aren’t tainted by unconscious biases.

This is not a simple task; it takes awareness, time and narrow, workable objectives. After all, we are not going to change the hardwiring of our species quickly! Many organizations are attempting to use training exercises to counter this process. A single one-time dose of learning may raise awareness, and that’s important. But it won’t permanently change habits that are so deeply embedded in us and that many will deny having (“Other people may have this, but not me”).

In a recent article, Yale professor John Dovidio suggested that the power of hidden bias tends to diminish the more we come in contact with people who represent groups where our biases may surface. This is promising; it suggests we should combat hidden bias, especially for situations where “relationships” are not well formed and where decisions may be made on paper qualifications or records without knowledge or familiarity of particular individuals.

Here’s a strategy for dealing with this issue in the workplace by not only building awareness but also providing models for changing high-risk unconscious decisions:

  • Not all implicit biases can be addressed. Organizations need to choose the areas that affect the greatest numbers of the workforce population and that can cause the greatest organizational harm. A logical place to start would involve implicit biases tied to race, gender, religion, age, national origin, disability and sexual orientation.
  • Awareness learning should be seen as part of a process, not a solution. Individuals need tools and actual behavioral suggestions for dealing with situations where implicit biases are likely to occur.

In our workplaces, there are two major areas where hidden biases are most likely to take place:

  • Frequent actions concerning major employment decisions, including hiring, disciplinary, promotional, wage, and any other decisions pertaining to terms and conditions of employment.
  • Routine interactions involving meetings and conversations where communications include not just what is said but also behaviors such as body language, tone of voice, gestures, and eye contact.

For each of the above, leaders and team members need behavioral tools that they regularly and consciously follow to counter the possibility of their own unconscious biases. Two suggestions:

  1. Use specific processes to evaluate applications, as well as pay and disciplinary records. Simple checklists are used in surgery; organizations should use the same kinds of tools in their approach in our workplaces.
  2. Teach team members the skills they need for raising and responding to issues of treatment that may stem from unconscious bias.

Finally, hold everyone accountable for the results of their actions – no exceptions. For instance, if the organization requires that behavioral checklists be used and it is discovered that certain individuals are not using them, then they need to explain why they failed to do so.

When organizations address unconscious biases at work, they will make better decisions, increase teamwork and reduce multiple risks that can harm performance and results. And as with other major initiatives, all of the above must be seen as a long-term initiative — a process to change behavior not a one-time event that will be soon forgotten.


Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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